One – the city of dreams, where tucked between the highways and residential Orlando lies Disney World, the other happiest place on Earth, where people take family vacation, spend honeymoons and anniversaries, ride roller coasters, stay in lavish hotels and enjoy character-themed breakfasts and parades. In short, they make memories that will last a lifetime (and, of course, cost an arm and a leg).
But, at the other end of Seven Dwarves Lane, you’ll find Hailey (Bria Vinaite) and Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a mother and daughter who have just spent their day selling markdown perfumes and colognes at a local hotel parking lot to make their weekly rent at The Magic Castle, a shabby motel, the kind of place that puts the “cinder” in Cinderella.
Hailey and Moonee don’t have the resources to even hint at a day spent in Walt’s illustrious Florida Project – they reside on the other side of the Disney property line. Although they can still catch a glimpse of the fireworks show if they find the right spot.
But, this is all lost on the younger Moonee, who finds as much happiness in her limited means as the kids do meeting the Frozen sisters a few blocks away.
The Florida Project is a testament to the power of childhood, and particularly, how childhood ignorance can be the sincerest bliss. Moonee’s completely unaware that things aren’t exactly peachy for her and her mother, because over her summer break the kid is having the time of her life.
Moonee spends most of summer’s dog days rummaging around one of Orlando’s main strips with her pals. Daily activities include spitting on cars, bumming change off sympathetic tourists for ice cream, watching television, swimming, arm farts, playing games, playfully mocking strange hotel guests, playing with toys and on an iPad, breaking into abandoned housing areas, getting free food from one of the kid’s waitress mothers. Any kid’s dream. Baker’s work with the young cast is nothing short of Spielbergian.
To Moonee and her friends, The Magic Castle and its surrounding area is a paradise where they reign supreme. To those who have left childhood behind, it’s a little more complex.
The motel is run by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the kindly guardian of its grounds. Bobby’s altogether good – he’s as much of a caretaker to his guests as he is a landlord. To Hailey, he’s as much of a father-figure as she’s got. To Mooney, Bobby’s the curmudgeon who doesn’t let kids eat ice cream in the lobby if it starts to drip, but also the protector who wards off ne’er-de-wells from the premises and the “cool uncle” who lets her and her buddy hide under his desk in an intense round of hide and seek.
Everyone at The Magic Castle has their baggage, both literally and figuratively, but it’s as inviting a motel as it is cheap. Bobby’s stewarding watch is respected by all on the guest roll (in one of the film’s richest scene, Baker zooms out to give a full vista of the motel and its patrons as they watch and jeer at Bobby from afar as he rushes to fix a quick power outage. He’s met with exclaims of clapping and cheers once the power returns, to which Bobby returns the love).
The Florida Project is full of love – love for its kids, love for its atmosphere, and love for the way the characters accept and help one another. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch preach about the need for having a community behind you, even one as unorthodox as a low-rent motel. But their film is also doused in darkness – the kind that’s inescapable when living below the poverty line. The clouds tend to stay over this section of Orlando more so than the one with the happy mice, and the bleak situation that Hailey and Moonee are really in seeps through more and more as the film goes on.
Even Moonee, who throughout the film is shielded from having to understand a lot of these darker elements, begins to get wise to how things really are. Prince’s performance is a revelation, particularly as things really go south. She’s as delightful and rambunctious as the role demands, until it doesn’t. As soon as the switch is pulled, she hits her brief solemn moments with fierce understanding.
Vinaite walks a fine line with Hailey – she’s a loving mother who wants what’s best for her child, even if her understanding of what’s best for Moonee falls dreadfully short of the reality. She’s both deeply flawed and admirably nurturing, a paradox Vinaite dives into with seasoned nuance. Along with Prince, she’s another startling newcomer.
If Prince gives the film its whimsy and heart, and Vinaite its rich complexity, it’s Dafoe who gifts it its soul. Enough praise cannot be given to Dafoe, who subsumes himself into Bobby, a man whose goodness knows no bounds and often conflicts with his duties as a manager. Bobby’s as much an example as he is a great role model; a man who embodies the kind of person all viewers should strive to be. Dafoe understand this.
The actor’s performance is as much a glowing showcase of his underappreciated talent as it is a call for goodwill and empathy in a time where both are in hot demand. He’s got his scars – brief interactions with his son (Caleb Landry Jones, who henceforth shall be known as Willem Dafoe Jr.) hint at a fractured marriage ended in unamicable divorce. He’s also a heavy smoker who seems to retreat to a quick cig when things get tense. But he’s unwavering in his self-assumed vocation as shining knight for the people of The Magic Castle. His performance is one of the great acting accomplishments of 2017.
Baker’s decision to shoot the film on 35mm print helps give it a misty, worn feel, befitting the landscape of the film. DP Alexis Zabe’s work really helps capture the melancholy and mirth that twist and tangle throughout this challenging picture.
Mickey Mouse has no direct role in The Florida Project, but his shadow looms heavily over the whole affair. Baker’s film stands as a stark challenge to those who feel life’s happiest moments can only be experienced behind the pearly gates of the Magic Kingdom. This is more than a film – it’s a public good.
The Florida Project is a rainbow in a rainstorm – illuminating the nuances of life that consume us all, no matter where we live, how much money we make, what our social status is, how we choose to spend our time and who we spend it with. Baker and company posit that above all else, it’s about how you treat others, and how you make the most of what you have that gives a person their worth. And, even when the rain is pouring its hardest, it’s about how the magic of childhood and the kindness of others can serve as the best umbrella – not the more-expensive ones with mouse ears on top.